Strategic Considerations: SACLANT, D-2 (7 July, 1987) **

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Inside of the operations center at his headquarters in Norfolk, SACLANT studied the large, computerized map display of the North Atlantic and Norwegian Sea intently. Blue NTDS symbols indicated the current positions of NATO surface ships, submarines, and air units. Red symbols showed the known or suspected positions of their Soviet counterparts. It was the Soviet subs not visible on the map that concerned him the most though.

The Red Banner Northern Fleet had not yet sortied.  This didn’t surprise Admiral Baggett. The crisis had exploded in a flash and was evolving at a rapid pace. Diplomats and general officers on both sides were having a hard time keeping pace with events, let alone trying to influence or slow them down. His counterpart in Murmansk was doubtless contending with his own operational problems and would’ve preferred to have his surface ships and submarines at sea by this point. The Soviets had designs for the Norwegian Sea and North Atlantic. If the Northern Fleet’s assets were out of position when the balloon went up, their wartime tasks would be made that much more difficult.

SACLANT’s intelligence chief estimated that the Northern Fleet was not going to begin putting to sea for twelve hours, and even then, the departure was going to be piecemeal.  The latest satellite photos showed the main surface elements of the fleet at various stages of preparation. Activity at the main submarine base at Polyarny was extremely high, with a large number of Red submarines ready ready to sail on short notice. When it happened, the news would reach Norfolk quickly. SACLANT had three submarines operating in close to the Soviet coast.

It was widely believed in Norfolk, Brussels, and Washington that once the Northern Fleet sailed, hostilities would begin forty-eight hours from that point. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and SACEUR checked in with Baggett at the top of every hour for an update. Admiral Crowe had another reason for making frequent calls. A major component of Maritime Strategy, the playbook which the US Navy and its NATO partners would use to fight the Third Battle of the Atlantic, was being fiercely debated in the White House and Pentagon at the moment: Taking out the Soviet SSBNs operating in protected bastions in the Barents and White seas, and also beneath the Arctic ice pack. There was growing question inside of the Reagan administration about the prudence of targeting Soviet strategic assets directly from the start of hostilities. Doing that could invite a disproportionate response which ran the risk of dangerously escalating the conflict. Right now, a number of US and British attack boats were moving north towards the Barents Sea exclusively for the SSBN interdiction mission.

SACLANT would not be disheartened if the SSBN hunt were postponed. Operationally, a delay would free up additional subs to interdict Soviet surface ships and submarines heading into the Norwegian Sea and North Atlantic. As the situation stood, his command was going to need every additional asset it could get its hands on to keep the Soviets bottled up in the Norwegian Sea until Baggett was ready to move Strike Fleet Atlantic north. To do this, he needed two or more carrier battle groups to form the vaunted strike fleet. Forrestal and Eisenhower were steaming northeast through Atlantic waters right now. However, it would be at least four days until both were in position. Kitty Hawk was expected to leave from Philadelphia tomorrow. When the time came, he could move north with just two decks if the situation called for it, though he was admittedly not comfortable with that scenario

NATO was in the ‘transition to war’ phase of Maritime Strategy, more commonly referred to as Phase One. It involved the marshaling of naval forces and their movement to forward areas, specifically the Norwegian Sea, and to a lesser extent the Barents as well. The time frame of the phase served as preparation for Phase Two; Seizing the initiative and taking the fight to the enemy.

Baggett’s forces were not prepared to move north at the moment and would not be ready when the shooting began. Therein lay the first strategic problem of the war for SACLANT: To go north with what was available, or wait until significant forces were massed and ready. The Norwegian Sea, as well as northern Norway were a cornerstone of the alliance’s SLOC defense. If NATO was forced to withdraw from the waters north of Iceland, and cede control of them to the Soviets, the pressure then placed on convoys crossing the Atlantic could be overwhelming.

It was a race, Baggett understood perfectly, to determine which side could muster the necessary forces, and start its operations first. For now, neither NATO’s Atlantic-based naval forces or the Red Banner Northern Fleet was in the position it wanted to be. With every hour that passed, the equation shifted. And for every hour that went by with the Soviets still in port, NATO benefited.

 

 

 

 

 

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